The Newsroom: S2 Ep1 review – First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the Lawyers

The Newsroom logoAfter an up-and-down debut season, Aaron Sorkin‘s The Newsroom is back for its second run amid talk of hefty rewrites in response to negative reviews. Did this season opener show signs of improvement?

This week’s headlines

The events of this episode takes place in two distinct timelines: the main one in August 2011 (about two weeks after the season one finale), while the secondary one puts us 14 months into the future in October/November 2012.

Flashing forwards to 2012, we see both Will McAvoy and MacKenzie McHale being deposed by lawyer Rebecca Halliday (Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden) regarding a story they ran and subsequently retracted about a black ops programme codenamed Operation Genoa, which puts the careers of the entire News Night team in jeopardy.

Rebecca: 14 months ago you went on the air and called the Tea Party the American Taliban. What happened then?

Will: A lot.

Jerry Dantana's arrival spells trouble for the team (Image: Newsroom Wiki)

Jerry Dantana’s arrival spells trouble for the team (Image: Newsroom Wiki)

Back in August 2011, the main focus is on drone strikes in Pakistan against strategic Al-Qaeda and Taliban targets, in particular the acceptability of civilian casualties. Stand-in senior producer Jerry Dantana (Hamish Linklater) puts one of his own contacts, Cyrus West, into a panel discussion during which a gun-shy Will pulls in his claws and allows him to grandstand, hanging Sloan Sabbith out to dry in the process.

After the debate, an anxious West offers Jerry a big exclusive, “the kind that makes careers and ends presidencies”, initiating the chain of events which will ultimately lead us to the 2012 timeline.

The B-block

The Libyan civil war reaches a head as rebel forces attack Muammar Gadaffi‘s palace in Tripoli, overthrowing him and his government and ultimately resulting in his execution.

A report on Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the IMF who was forced to resign over sexual assault allegations, causes panic in the control room after a botched fact-check has to be corrected live on air.

The team is preparing for the ten-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, but Charlie has to talk Will into standing down from fronting the coverage after the controversy over his Tea Party comments. Will outwardly accepts being benched but is obviously seething inside, leading to his passiveness in the drone panel discussion and a heated showdown with Mac.

To get away from Don and Maggie’s lovey-doveyness, Jim Harper accepts a temporary assignment covering Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney on the campaign trail. To cover, Mac drafts in Jerry from the Washington office to fill in.

Neal Sampat pitches a story about an embryonic protest movement called Occupy Wall Street, claiming it could be the US’s Arab Spring. Mac is initially dismissive, but relents and sends him to attend the group’s next General Assembly, where Neal befriends de facto leader Shelly Wexler (Aya Cash) and offers advice on mounting an effective protest.

Will and Mac end up arguing in a bar about whether The Who’s You Better You Bet is a metaphor for their own relationship or Will’s connection with his audience. In fact, it’s a better description of both Don and Maggie’s relationship and the unfolding Operation Genoa storyline. If two parties are going to go all in together, there had better be substance behind that commitment. In each case someone – a YouTube video of Maggie publicly ranting about her love for Jim, the robustness of Jerry’s Genoa story (we’re told he doctored an interview) – is exposed as holding an empty hand.


What can possibly happen in a couple of weeks?

Will’s rhetorical question about how long it is until Jim returns is, obviously, dripping in foreboding. We already know that the chain of events which will put his team’s livelihoods in jeopardy is already under way. But the question can also be asked retrospectively, as much has also transpired in the two-week gap between the end of season one and this episode.

We closed the first season riding high on the associated tales of Don Quixote and Camelot, with the News Night team merrily tilting at windmills and willingly being the ‘greater fool’. But as season two opens, we discover that their actions have consequences. In some cases doors literally close: Reese Lansing is locked out of a House judiciary hearing about the SOPA anti-piracy law, while Jim is refused a seat on Romney’s campaign bus. Neal finds ACN’s credibility has been damaged by their coverage of the Casey Anthony trial. Maggie Jordan‘s sidewalk rant in last season’s finale results in the abrupt termination of her relationship with Don Keefer (paving the way for a previously hinted Don/Sloan relationship to develop). And Will’s ‘American Taliban’ comments about the Tea Party lead to him being pulled from ACN’s 9/11 anniversary coverage and his reversion to his initial season one defence mechanism of wise-cracking passivity and willfully getting people’s names wrong.

It feels like season one’s over-the-top idealism has been tempered with a note of realism as the team are forced to take off their rose-tinted glasses, stare into the harsh light of day and deal with the fact they have created as many enemies as friends.

Off the back of revised opening music and titles which are a little sharper and convey greater urgency – I miss the old titles, though – the framing device of the deposition sessions establishes genuine jeopardy up front and teases what is to come. What did the News Night team get so horribly wrong regarding Operation Genoa? What was Maggie’s traumatic incident in Uganda that led to her dramatic haircut? And how many people will notice that this is the same narrative framework as Sorkin’s screenplay for The Social Network?

Clearly these will be explored over the course of coming episodes, and with Neal’s involvement with Occupy Wall Street we will also have more ongoing storylines to follow rather than one-off hits.

There has also been some tweaking to a number of the characters. At first it seems that the reset button has been pressed completely on Will as he reverts to his former arrogant, diffident, image-conscious persona, but in the 2012 timeline it becomes clearer that he is using his defence mechanisms less to protect himself than as a way of sheltering his team.

Mac’s characterisation was roundly criticised for her all too frequent descents into hysteria and incompetence, but here we see her much more in control and making the kind of high-pressure decisions you would expect a good executive producer to make.

Jim suddenly can’t cope with the overtness of Don and Maggie’s relationship, leading to an uncharacteristically emotional outburst where he volunteers for the Romney assignment just to get away. It feels like a stretch, albeit one necessary to get him out of the picture and get Jerry in to set the Genoa ball rolling.

And what’s happened to Will’s bodyguard Lonny Church? Wasn’t it only a couple of weeks ago that Neal’s trolling assignment accidentally stirred up a whole new series of death threats against Will? Surely they can’t have gone away that quickly?

Overall though, if this first episode is anything to go by, it looks as if season two of The Newsroom will have more of an emphasis on dramatic rather than soap opera elements as the show shifts from rebellious adolescence to a more grown-up tone. It’s still not perfect – there’s still too much sanctimony, for starters – but it’s encouraging that Sorkin appears to have listened to the show’s critics and made some distinct and positive changes to the format. A good, solid start, albeit one which lacks the between-the-eyes punch of the original pilot.

And finally …

This episode’s title – First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the Lawyers – is a quotation from Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part II.

In the studio between items, Will sings Friday to himself, the song which made a YouTube sensation of Rebecca Black. At the time of writing the video has over 57 million views and nearly 1.2m dislikes on YouTube. Black later appeared in the video for Katy Perry’s appropriately titled Last Friday Night (T.G.I,F.).

To amuse himself, Will adopts the role of a night-time talk show host called the ‘Nightbird’. Is this a reference to the late-80s drama Midnight Caller‘s Jack Killian, a cop-turned-radio-host who operated under the moniker ‘Nighthawk’? Killian was played by Gary Cole, one of whose subsequent roles was vice-president Robert ‘Bingo Bob’ Russell in Sorkin’s The West Wing.

The Who’s You Better You Bet was released in 1981 and became both the band’s last top US top 20 single and their last UK top 10 hit.

Rating: 8/10

The Newsroom continues on Sky Atlantic on Mondays at 9pm.

5 Comments on The Newsroom: S2 Ep1 review – First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the Lawyers

  1. The title of the ep really bugged me. As you said Tim, it’s from Henry VI, Part II, but it’s about how lawyers are an obstacle to tyranny and in order to impose it, you have to get rid of them all. Maybe the rest of the story arc will illustrate that theme but it didn’t fit this ep: it came across more as a snide little swipe at MGH’s character who really isn’t remotely in the wrong. Hmmm.

    I wondered about the Nightbird/Nighthawk ref too! I would LOVE for that to be what he meant. Gary Cole should totally guest star in Newsroom too….

    • You’re right, CJ, it’s an odd choice of title. Surely You Better You Bet would have been more appropriate? Although Rebecca Halliday is set up as more of an adversary here, I rather suspect she’ll turn out to be more of a sounding board for the audience, potentially even an ally.

      Given how tied in a lot of the AWM back-stories are to Washington politics, wouldn’t it be funny if Gary Cole were to turn up on something like a House judiciary committee as, say, a Democrat Congressman called, I don’t know, Robert Russell … 🙂

  2. You can’t have enough Bingo Bob. (He’s just turned up in Royal Pains.)

    Anyway, I thought this was pretty good. I too miss the old titles, but if you’re trying to reposition your show as less up its own ass then, frankly, those titles are going to have to be the first thing to go. So I can understand it.

    I take your point about the slightly awkward nature of the plot device which got Jim out of town, but I suppose – if indeed Jerry is going to be the Genoa bad guy – that Sork didn’t want any of the regular cast to be responsible for starting it. Anyway, it seemed pretty plausible to me that Jim might want to be somewhere else for a couple of weeks. One or two of us have been there.

    • For sure, Jim (or someone else in a suitably responsible position on the team) had to be temporarily shunted to allow Jerry The Fall Guy to step in and initiate the Genoa debacle, It still felt a little out of character for Jim to react so emotionally to it – his “let me go or fire me” rant in Mac’s office felt very off to me – but he does seem to be a tricky character to write. Take away the Maggie/Lisa thing and he’s basically an even-more-goody-two-shoes version of Clark Kent, but without the cape.

      Still, I enjoyed this, and it was definitely good to see Sorkin dealing with some of season 1’s flaws.

  3. Skip Morris // July 2, 2019 at 5:16 am // Reply

    The “Nightbird” is a reference to Alision Steele, the late-night DJ on WNEW-FM in New York City from the mid-60’s to the late-70’s. You can listen to a few of her openings on YouTube and you’ll hear how Will sounds just like her in that episode. I don’t know Will McAvoy’s age, but Jeff Daniels was working in New York during that same time period and would have been familiar with her.

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